Invisible Friends?

Photography: Fran Jorgensen

By J. Bradley Wigger

“This is Quack Quack,” four-year-old Nathan said holding up a drawing of an otherwise invisible duck. He followed with several more: Tadpole, brothers Jump Jump and Jump Jax, and his favorite, a one hundred-year-old robin named Stella.

If your child has an imaginary/invisible friend (IF), should you worry? What’s going on in these young minds that they befriend robins and tadpoles and whatever can be imagined? Once upon a time, those inspired by Freud or the developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, would have said it’s simple: young children cannot differentiate fantasy from reality. Young psyches egocentrically generate hallucinations to compensate for unmet needs-IFs take the place of the ordinary, visible kind of friend for shy, lonely hearts. The task for these children, and childhood in general, is to get real.

Yet, a newer wave of thinking questions such assumptions and has begun to appreciate the strengths of young imaginations. After my own daughter, at three, introduced me to her invisible friend, Crystal, I eventually found myself exploring the realms of IFs around the world, in five very different countries.

In the US (where I live), besides Quack Quack and Stella, I heard about an animated teapot, a baby bear shared by brothers, a monkey who joins the dinner table, an alien who is sometimes a dinosaur, and Lucy who is ordinarily a rabbit, but can be a tiger or lion or mouse or mom (of the human variety)-but is always Lucy. In whatever form, these companions represented powerful relationships for the children.  

In Kenya, children liked to play, read, or take walks with their friends that nobody else could see. Most were of the human sort except for one little girl’s imaginary elephant. “Could I see your friend?” I asked Emma, a six-year-old, to confirm its imaginary status. “No,” she said, “but God can.”

In Malawi, children were joined by invisible pals through sports such as soccer or netball (much like basketball and particularly popular among girls). One budding track star liked to practice long jumping with his friend.

In the Dominican Republic a seven-year-old girl liked to play cards with her amiga imaginaria, begging the question of who wins. Another child had an invisible security guard, one who was particularly helpful whenever he had money.

And in Nepal a sweet little seven-year-old boy described how he and his brother play with an imaginary family together-mother, father, older brother, and younger sister. He was not alone in sharing imaginary worlds with others. In all these various places, I found siblings or close friends sharing invisible companions in play.

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